Over the years, Hartford’s downtown public library has become a welcoming place for people in immigrant communities and for those experiencing homelessness.
Since the branch had to close its doors over a month ago because of the coronavirus, the Hartford Public Library staff has been working to continue to serve those communities.
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Part of that staff includes lawyers and immigration specialists, who frequently help people with the application for U.S. citizenship. It is 30 pages long and comes with a price tag of over $700.
“We have maintained our commitment to all those citizenship applicants that we were helping legally with their application forms,” said Homa Naficy, executive director of The American Place, a free program for immigrants seeking citizenship and other services.
In 2013, the Hartford Public Library became the first public library in the country to receive recognition and staff accreditation from the U.S. Department of Justice to offer legal counsel. That sparked a surge in enrollment in the library’s citizenship classes.
In the past few weeks, classes for adult and youth English as a second language, citizenship and food service industry certifications have moved online. The majority of those students have enrolled in the online classes, intent on picking up where they left off. Leading up to the launch of their digital classes, Naficy said staff members conducted wellness and technology checks to see how their students were doing and whether they had access to the internet, laptops or smartphones.
“If we totally abandon our community, our students, that’s just making the situation worse, and that’s just not what we’re about,” Naficy said. “We’re about serving the community.”
For her, this is personal. She was born in Paris and is originally from Iran.
But since the citizenship office is closed, and the Trump administration has temporarily thrown all immigration questions into doubt, naturalization interviews and oath ceremonies are postponed.
“There’s an added fear, you feel a little more marginalized,” Naficy said. “We have some people in limbo, but hopefully once this period, this safe distancing period is over, those steps will be administered.”
For members of Hartford’s homeless community, the library has been a safe, welcoming, clean space.
“A lot of them were visiting because they were looking for warmth, they were looking for a place to be and they were looking for a place to be connected via Wi-Fi,” said Leticia Cotto, the library’s customer experience officer.
In the coming weeks, the branch’s library on wheels with a Wi-Fi hotspot will be stationed outside a daytime homeless facility in Hartford that doesn’t offer internet access. Library branches throughout the city have strong enough signals for people to use if they’re on a nearby sidewalk, bench or the steps of the library.
CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey said that while staff members are working from home, they’re using the time to complete training called the Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness.
“It’s a wonderful training program that really talks about what are some of the things we should be thinking about,” Quinn-Carey said, “so that everybody on our staff -- public facing as well as back office, administrative -- really has a shared understanding of what it means to provide the best services we possibly can for people in the community that may be experiencing [homelessness] and that are vulnerable in other ways as well.”
It’s unclear when the library will be able to reopen, but until then, staff members plan to keep serving and connecting with the people they were used to seeing in person on a regular basis.